On the Sunday that broke Boston’s snowfall record, the In modo d’una Marcia movement of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major flared about Jordan Hall at the hands of Boston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players and guest artist Emanuel Ax: maximum poise arrived in the midst of inexorable despair.
In a Schumann and Kurtág excursion, the players provided interest, even fascination, if not edge-of-the-seat action. With clarinetist William R. Hudgins taking on the Fantasiestücke (we more often hear these pieces played on the cello) before James Sommerville displayed his solo chops in the Adagio and Allegro for horn and piano, it felt not unlike being at a competition where instrumentalists are afforded the opportunity to show off before a jury.
Fantasiestücke found a pureness of expression, a suave coolness in Hudgins’s clarinet artistry. The quicksilver chromaticism in the last movement took on a naturalness, brightening that instrument’s role in a piece otherwise designed more for Romantic era sensibilities. Hudgins’s flawlessness extends well beyond notes; one must bow to his inhuman breath control and his remarkable span of colorful subtleties over the clarinet’s vast range.
Emanuel Ax brought too much muscularity to his part of this duo. A kind of nippiness dominated his phrasing of Schumann’s motives, which left a wanting for some sense of spontaneity in turning over zeniths and denouements.
Adagio and Allegro for horn and piano followed with Sommerville joining Ax. This experience largely involved holding one’s own breath in the hopes that all would go well on one of—if not, the most—difficult of instruments to play. Much did. Sommerville’s opening tone came out of nowhere to bloom into one of the finest crescendos that could ever come out of what once was known as the French horn.
With marvels of tone high and low, there also came unfamiliar sounds especially ones sustained in the bass register. The triple tonguing of the Allegro verged on harshness. However, much engaged in his otherwise expert handling of the instrument. With extroverted artistry, Ax masterfully supported Sommerville.
Another guest, Christine Brandes, who brings a committed artistry to repertoire ranging from the 17th century to newly composed works, was featured in Scenes from a Novel for soprano and ensemble, Op. 19 by György Kurtág. The highly unlikely amalgam of Haldan Martinson, violin, Edwin Barker, double bass, and guest Nicholas Tolle, cimbalom, commandeered a ship laden with early 20th century Expressionism, maybe even calling to mind painter Francis Bacon.
Eerie violin whistles, unnerving double bass grumbles, and ghost-like shimmering of the hammer dulcimer common to Hungary surrounded the chilling and sometimes shrilling vocalizations of Brandes.
With the text being in Russian and Jordan’s lighting too dim for ease of reading the printed translation, the ability to follow this severe and exacting work beyond its sonic imagery was considerably diminished. While the tonal virtuosity of Brandes cannot be denied, a measure of abrasiveness, perhaps inherent to the score, overshadowed
After intermission, the BSO winds projected Kurtág’s Wind Quintet, Op. 2 into a rainbow of timbres that kept the eight miniatures, so free of circadian rhythms, from falling out of midair. “While studying in Paris in 1957-58, Kurtág was crippled by a debilitating creative block, with long-lasting repercussions for his composing. Only after consulting with a psychoanalyst would he begin slowly to claw his way back to productivity—this by focusing on the smallest, and most essential, music questions, like how to get from one note to another.” (This is from the absorbing program notes by Matthew Mendez). Some moments still appear fresh, one such being the butterfly-like fluttering of III, Vivo.
Of the BSO Chamber Players’s—Lowe, Martinson, Ansell, Eskin, and Ax—prophetic performance of Schumann’s peerless Quintet one could ask if these March flares could ever be surpassed. And applause, hoots, and all the rest came aplenty. You bet and more, much more, all of it obviously genuine.
What, an encore coming after that?
No. To our surprise and to the accompaniment provided by Emmanuel Ax, we all joined in singing “…happy birthday, dear Malcolm…”